Despite only appearing in 19 games prior to the NBA halting play in mid-March, Zion Williamson’s impact on the court was unmistakable: The rookie immediately emerged as New Orleans’ second-leading scorer (23.6 ppg), second-best rebounder (6.8 rpg) and most efficient player (59 percent shooting, 24.2 PER). In addition to what he accomplished between the lines, his teammates were just as impressed by how Williamson conducts himself away from basketball, while being the center of an enormous amount of attention.
“He’s got one of the brightest spotlights in the league and in the world right now,” Pelicans third-year wing Josh Hart said. “He handles everything great, (with) humility. I’m very surprised and proud of how he handles all of it.”
Williamson may be turning 20 today, but his final few years as a teenager gave him countless experiences that have helped to make him feel a bit beyond his age.
“I thank God for all the blessings I’m able to get,” he said Thursday of his life so far. “But it’s weird. I’m going to be 20, no longer a teen. But in a weird way, I haven’t felt like a teenager in a long time.”
He didn’t play like one, either, from the moment he put on a New Orleans uniform in October preseason action. Within moments of making his unofficial debut in Atlanta, the Duke product wowed fans with highlight-reel dunks and later his ability to score 20-plus points with ease. After sitting out 44 regular season games while rehabilitating from knee surgery, the same was true in late January – he shot over 70 percent from the field in his first two games, then notched 30-plus points in his ninth and 10th games. New Orleans ranked eighth defensively after his Jan. 22 debut, as well as No. 11 offensively.
“The addition (of) him made us more aggressive, more dynamic,” Hart said. “It definitely put us in an amazing (spot) to make a push for the playoffs. I mean, I think if we had him at the beginning of the year, the story wouldn’t be (that we are) fighting for the eighth seed. It would have been: We’re a four or five seed in the West. That’s my opinion. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to have him in the beginning of the year, but he’s helped turn this organization and this season around.”
Seeding games to watch
Williamson was excellent everywhere he played during his 19-game run, but his individual numbers were a tick better in the Smoothie King Center than on the road. Unfortunately for the rookie, he won’t have home fans rooting for him in Orlando.
“It’s definitely going to be different,” he said of the fan-less environment. “I love the fans in New Orleans – they show so much love. They always come out and support us. So it’s going to be something different. As long as we stick together as a team and give each other energy, I think we’ll be fine.”
Among NOLA’s seven different opponents in seeding games (Sacramento is on the schedule twice), Williamson only faced Memphis and San Antonio once each, logging a total of just 47 minutes. He rang up 22 points and seven rebounds (highlighted by 4/4 shooting from the arc) against the Spurs, a game played over five months ago. Fans everywhere will be tuning in to see how the 6-foot-6 forward performs during “Act II” of his first pro season.
“I think body-wise, he looks amazing,” Hart said, describing Williamson’s potential readiness to resume ’19-20. “He looks good. His shot looks better than it has been in a while, so he’s been putting the work in, and that’s great to see.”